“We are very happy to be here in Iran and ready to compete!” Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs wrote in a caption to an Instagram post on Tuesday, when the team landed in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah for the Freestyle World Cup.
The accompanying photo showed Burroughs, who is leading the team, surrounded by a crowd of local fans and reporters at the airport. Greeters gave the athletes roses and took selfies with Burroughs and others.
“Welcome to Iran champ!!!!" one Iranian user, Saeed Mohammadi, commented on the Instagram photo.
Another, Nima Jan, said he was traveling to the stadium to cheer for Burroughs.
“You proved that you are a noble man.… This is a big chance for us,” Jan said. “We do not pay attention to the behavior of America's government” toward Iran.
The two-day tournament began Thursday, when U.S. wrestlers faced off against Georgia, Russia and Azerbaijan. But it wasn't always certain that the Americans would get to compete. Just as in years past, the athletes were at the mercy of tensions between the two governments.
In late January, Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, from entering the United States. Iranian officials responded by announcing their own entry ban on U.S. citizens, including the wrestling team that was just weeks away from traveling to Kermanshah.
Wrestling is wildly popular in Iran and is widely considered as the country’s national sport. Kermanshah has also served as an epicenter for wrestling in Iran.
“I love Iran. I love their people, and I don't get into politics,” Burroughs told the Associated Press on Feb. 3, after the team was notified they would not be able to travel.
“I wasn't going to make a political stance,” he said. “I was going to compete.”
Then something happened. On Feb. 5, a federal judge temporarily suspended the ban, and a higher U.S. appeals court refused the government's request to immediately reinstate the executive order.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded almost immediately on Twitter, saying the judicial decisions had prompted Iran's government to reverse course and grant visas to the U.S. wrestling team.
The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since Iranian militants seized hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 following Iran's Islamic revolution. But in 1998, a wrestling tournament in Iran offered a chance for a small opening.
A U.S. wrestling team became the first American sports team to visit Iran since the revolution. The wrestlers received a warm reception, and the event opened the door for other U.S. sports and cultural exchanges.
“This World Cup is going to be a special one!” American wrestler James Green tweeted on Feb. 1.
“We'll be bringing nations together as always,” he said. “No other sport does that like wrestling.”
Brian Murphy contributed to this post.